One large city would provide more cost-effective government.
It’s easy to say that one large city government for greater Hartford could be operated more cost-effectively than the City of Hartford and seven or eight surrounding towns are operated, but it isn’t so easy to prove.
Why is it difficult to show conclusively that the operation of the city and towns combined would be cheaper? Because the devil truly is in the details. Town budgets are not prepared using a standardized format. It may be easy to determine how much West Hartford spends on parks, for example, but finding a comparable number for, say, Windsor, is difficult, because the town budgets may report payroll, fringe benefits, overhead and other items in different ways. Trying to reconcile those figures for dozens of town functions across the city and seven or eight towns is time-consuming work. Multiply that by fifteen or twenty functions budgeted separately, and you can begin to see the problem.
Even if all of that data were presented in a consist, easy-to-use format, it would remain to combine the data in a pro forma big-city government, eliminating duplicate positions and identifying other savings. That work requires an understanding of how the services of any particular function would be delivered across the city. Only then could we begin to develop a reliable understanding of exactly how much could be saved.
Why hasn’t anyone done that study? I’ll admit to not knowing, but my guess is that it hasn’t happened because it hasn’t been in the political interests of our town leaders, through CRCOG or otherwise, to spend the money to do it. Why not? (1) Because town leaders already know that greater Hartford could save a lot of money if the towns and the city merged. (2) Because their constituents like their towns and don’t want to spend money on something they fear would upset their lives. (3) Because a merger of towns would eliminate the jobs of many local political leaders and appointees. Community leaders aren’t always motivated by self-interest, but it’s natural for people to consider how change will impact them personally, and the change I’m talking about will eliminate a lot of jobs. It isn’t surprising that, so far as I know, the study has never been proposed, let alone funded.
Why is it obvious a merged greater Hartford could be operated at less expense? Look at one excellent example: Education. Seven towns have seven superintendents of school, and Hartford has an eighth. Those eight people are paid someplace between $1.5 million and $2 million, and the cost of fringe benefits is at least another $500,000. The merged city could hire one superintendent for over $400,000. Yes, the new system might need a couple of assistant superintendents at a total of $300,000, but the savings would still be over $1 million. And there would be other staff savings in the superintendent’s office. It’s reasonable to guess that the merged city would save $2 million in salary and benefits for the superintendent, assistant superintendents and support staff, and it could be more than that.
Then look at computer systems in the school systems. Payroll, student record keeping, food services, and other systems. Currently, eight municipalities buy eight separate systems and pay eight separate license fees plus fees for each user. In a merged city, there would be just one system. The merged city could buy state of the art systems and still spend less than eight municipalities currently pay.
Then look at economies of scale in purchasing of goods and services.
Multiply those kinds of savings across a dozen or more departments within the administrative structures of the merged system, and it’s easy to see that we’re talking about many millions of dollars. The assessor’s office, the building department, parks and rec, the mayor’s office, the police department, the fire department.
And although the merged city would keep all of the schools and parks that currently exist, most other town capital assets could be consolidated. There would be no need for eight town halls or eight vehicle maintenance facilities. The merged city would realize one-time capital infusions by selling excess property, and it would realize year-to-year savings on the maintenance and other expenses associated with those properties.
Not all cost savings would be immediate. Employment contracts, including collectively bargained agreements, would have to be honored until they expire. Procurement contracts would be the same. But over time, as contracts expire, the impact on the budget would be realized.
So how much money could be saved? I don’t know, and I don’t know if anyone knows. A friend of mine cautioned me against over-selling the savings angle. He said he couldn’t see how the savings could exceed 10% of the total budgets of the towns and city. I agree; I think his 10% estimate may overstate things by a factor of two, so let’s call it 5%.
What does a 5% savings mean. Well, in it’s simplest terms, if you asked property owners whether they would like a 5% reduction in their property taxes, I suspect most would be delighted.
Or look at it another way. The combined budgets of the city and seven contiguous towns are around $1.5 billion dollars. A 5% savings would amount to $75 million. To put it in perspective, with $75 million the merged city could build a new Dunkin Donuts Park every year. Obviously, we don’t need dozens of minor league ballparks, but the image helps us understand the kind of impact we could realize on our infrastructure with funds saved in a merger. Who wouldn’t sign up for a deal that meant once every ten years or so the schools in their community could afford a $75 million makeover?
Convinced yet? Well, to be honest, I’m not convinced, either. I think we’d be looking at big savings, but there’s only one way to know for sure, and that’s for someone to figure it out. I don’t know what a definitive cost analysis would cost, but my guess is that it would be in the range of at least several hundred thousand dollars. CRCOG doesn’t have that money, and the towns aren’t likely to subsidize a project like that. That’s one reason I’ve suggested we need a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization. That organization could solicit contributions and grants to underwrite the study that I’m confident would demonstrate that our current governance structure needlessly wastes tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars annually. A community with high taxes and a high cost of living can’t afford that kind of waste.